Tom Marsh - Give Us Our Daily Bread

This was the unuttered cry of all the prisoners. Give us food. Give us enough so that we can live. How can we work when we are starving? The Japs answer ‘We will show you how’ and he did. At Hong Kong following the surrender the rations were meager. Every man got two small bowls of rice daily and some greens such as turnip, cabbage, eggplant and sea kale and the occasional serving of a small portion of fish or meat. From December 1941 until February 1945 we each received one Red Cross parcel. At the time we left for Japan proper we were all suffering from malnutrition. From 190 pounds at the time of my capture I was down to 120 pounds and so it was with the rest. Malnutrition diseases had set in, beriberi, dysentery etc. Yet if a man, however sick, was able to walk he was presumed fit for work and was compelled to go out on working parties. He was of little or no use and his condition was aggravated by exposure and toil.

At D3 Camp near Yokohama, in the winter of 1943, I suffered an attack of dysentery and as I was sick and so weak that I was utterly useless for any kind of work. I reported to our Medical Officer, Capt. Reid. What I desired was an excuse from work in the shipyard until I could recover a little. Captain Reid had not the power to excuse anybody. All the sick able to walk had to be paraded before one of the guards, a private. He sat at a table at the end of one of the huts. Vastly impressed with his own importance and determined to impress that same importance on any of the prisoners who should come before him. That morning there was a long line of sick prisoners. Most could hardly walk and were suffering from a variety of malnutrition and exposure diseases. All of them had previously been examined by Dr. Reid and found him to be in dire need of hospitalization, extra food and rest.

We were told by the Doctor that all depended on the whim of the surly guard and that we should all salute and hope for the best. As we filed up to the table Captain Reid stood beside the Jap pointing out the names of the men on a sheet of paper. In the best Japanese, of which he was capable, he tried to make the guard understand the seriousness of the individual prisoners complaint.

Man after man dragged himself before the table. They stood after giving a feeble salute in a hopeless forlorn position. Captain Reid would make his plea. The Jap paid scarcely any attention to what he was saying and would put a mark against the name on the list. Then peering at the sick and shivering prisoner he would say in English with a motion of dismissal, “Work. You work.”

A few, for no particular reason, were excused work. A fewer still were allowed an increase in their ration of a small bun of bread a day for a limited period to offset dysentery and malnutrition.

I had been long enough a prisoner to have some idea of the Jap’s mentality and decided to give my knowledge a tryout. When my turn came at last and I stood before the table, I gathered together the last remnants of strength I possessed, sprang smartly to attention and gave Mr. Glower Puss a real military salute. He was at first surprised and then obviously pleased. Turning to Captain Reid. He said, “ Give that man bread.”

And bread and rest I got, for about ten days. When we were dismissed I told the Doctor he could keep the bread, as I knew there were some who needed it worse than me. I would be satisfied with the rest from labor.

He replied, “ Keep the bread Marsh. If I gave it to others the Japs would find out and it would be the worse for us all.”

I shared this bread with friends as they had shared with me.

During the summer of 1944 in Yokohama we were, as usual, very hungry. Our constant ambition was to get a little extra to eat. One afternoon, while passing along the quay on an errand, I was surprised to see the water around the dock alive with little fish. Here was food, but how to get it? I went back to the paint shop, and unobserved, made myself a scoop net out of some bamboo canes and an old piece of sacking. Waiting an opportune moment I slipped out and down to the dock. No one was in the immediate vicinity so I crouched down and commenced fishing in earnest. Eureka! There was silver, better than gold in the net. Again and again I plunged in my scoop and more and more little fish accumulated until I had quite a pile of them. I thought I had better hide them for the guards were always prowling and I might be discovered. Where could I hide them? My pockets were already full of the fish so I stuffed them inside my shirt and overalls. I felt them wiggling all over me, it was a delightful wiggle, it meant food. I was now pretty well packed with fish but could not tear myself away from nature’s bounty and decided to take a few more scoops when, wham! I felt a violent blow between my shoulders blades that almost knocked me into the water. At the same time I heard the dreaded “ KOO DA! KOO DA!” the shout of a Japanese guard. Looking around I saw him waddling or half running towards me. He had just thrown a fairly large rock, with which I had made acquaintance. He was in a terrible rage, gesturing and screaming like a monkey. I stood to attention as we were compelled to do when being addressed by a guard. He seized my fishing scoop and tried to break it over my head. He broke it on my arm and shoulder instead. I was thinking hard. I hated to lose those fish. My assailant was fairly old and flabby, splayfooted and either lame or in no condition to run, so I suddenly gave him a push. He must have slipped on a fish for down he sat and I bolted, not to the paint shop but to another part of the yards where I dodged among the different buildings, being busy on an imaginary job when I saw another guard.

At last I got back to the paint shop without detection. The Paint master himself greeted me and wanted to know where I had been. As I was trying to tell a plausible story little fish fell out of my sleeves and overalls. I then told him the truth and we went into the office where I emptied the fish into a pail. He said he should report me to the guard but as they would take away the fish it would be better that nobody say anything and that he and I eat the fish that evening. We did. They were delicious.

At the same camp at a time when we were down to the barest minimum of sustenance we once got for our evening meal, along with our cupful of rice, one small sprat apiece. This was a welcome treat and everyone watched with greedy eyes as they were distributed one to each man’s bowl. Then just as we were prepared to seize the delicacy the lights went out. Commands were shouted, “Hold everything. Stay where you are. Nobody move.”

It was a full fifteen minutes before the lights came on. Then horror. One of the little fish was missing.

Everyone looked suspiciously at hisneighbors. Movement of the jaws was looked for. Men turned out their pockets. Curses were cried on the thief. After a half hour search a tiny piece was cut off each man’s fish to make up the missing portion and we ate. The topic of the week was ‘Who stole the fish.’

That night one of the boys was discovered secretly devouring a fish in bed. He claimed he had saved it from his supper. But now when his old comrades meet him they say to themselves, ‘He stole the fish.

With so much dire necessity there was bound to be a certain amount of pilfering and this was divided into two kinds, that directed against the Japs was OK with the boys but against a fellow prisoner was considered a serious crime. Fortunately there was very little of the latter. As far as the Japs were concerned the prisoners stole anything they could carry away, mainly food and fuel.

At the shipyards the Japanese workmen would bring their lunch boxes or rice and bits of this and that and place them in orderly rows at the back of the shipyard kitchen where, before lunchtime, they would be warmed up. Our boys soon located this display of food and on different pretenses would sneak back into the kitchen. Sure enough when they did some ones dinner would be missing. It got so bad that the Japs had to put a special guard on their cookhouse.

At the Sendai Coal Mining Camp I remember an Imperial soldier being caught by the Japs as he was stealing food from a pig trough. The Japanese Commandant decided to humiliate him, and indirectly all of us, by having the trough brought out on the square. Filling it with swill they drew a line and made the culprit crawl on his hands and knees from the line to the trough and eat. Many of the prisoners, myself included, were ashamed to see one of their own people so humiliated, but the victim did not seem to mind. Grinning broadly he scrambled up to the trough, put his face into the swill and ate. A short while later, after liberation, I saw this same lad singing in the choir of a camp Thanksgiving service. He sang heartily. Evidently the swill did not affect his outlook.

In every camp there was bound to be a few underworld characters that seemed to be naturals for any thieving, cheating, or black market transactions. The Japanese police picked up a Jap in Tokyo with a pair of our Red Cross boots. These boots had been issued to a few of the prisoners in our camp who were in dire need of them, but a couple of prisoners, having got hold of a pair, traded them to the Tokyo Jap for provisions.

The Tokyo Civil Police, a smart body of men with neat blue uniform, shiny boots and a small silver sword, were well on the job. They brought the Jap to our camp where he identified one of the prisoners (I shall name him Smith). Smith was seized and asked to name his companion. He refused and was given a beating.

The next day they lined up all the prisoners and asked Smith to point out the man. Again he refused and received more beatings. Then we were told that if the man did not come forward we would all be punished … still no confession. Now Smith was led up to each of the prisoners in turn and the prisoner was asked, “ Did you trade the boots with Smith.”

All replied “No”, until they came to the guilty party. Smith then muttered, “Come on! Own up! I’ve taken enough beatings for you.”

So his confederate confessed and they both were hauled away to jail in Tokyo, and this was the extraordinary thing, they both got better food and treatment than they were receiving in camp. They came back heavier than when they left, reporting that the food was good, the jail clean and warm and they were never beaten. They just sat around without working and had met the intelligentsia of Tokyo, diplomats, politicians and bankers, while exercising in the prison yard. Also they had been issued with warm padded clothing and to prove it they produced a fine jacket that they had swiped from the police station. Right then and therewe all wanted to go to jail.

Our underworld consisted of about nine tough characters. Living so closely together we had come to know them and therefore when some particular skullduggery was afoot it could usually be traced to their vicinity. So it was at camp D3. My friend Allister lost his sweater. Obviously it had been stolen. Now a sweater was essential to offset the cold winter. It could not be replaced and meant that the loser would suffer real hardship.

Allister reported his loss to Captain Reid. All Captain Reid had to do was to call the nine men of our underworld before him and say, “I know one of you has the sweater. If the one who has it does not return it to Allister before morning I will turn the whole nine of you over to the Japs and let them locate the culprit.”

They departed and sagely talked it over. They knew what would happen if the Japs started working on them so it was decided that whoever had the sweater should give it back and the guilty one accordingly returned Allister’s sweater. The rest of the boys in the hut were indignant and decided to punish the thief. Here is the matter of one prisoner beating another. They dared not report to the Jap and they had no other means of punishment so they took the thief outside and gave him a beating. They dragged him before Allister and said, “ Come on, take a good poke at him! It was your sweater!” After some urging Allister gently tapped the cringing one on the cheek and then departed. I said to him later, “ Why didn’t you give him a good one. He deserved it.” Allister replied, “I was so happy at getting my sweater back that I couldn’t feel mad!” Such is the difference in human nature.